The original version of Georg Büchner’s tragi-comedy Woyzeck was left unfinished on account of the author’s untimely death. And thus, for the past century and a half, the play has been molded in various fashions. Woyzeck follows a working-class war veteran as he steadily goes mad from a combination of betrayal and emotional neglect from his doctors and commanding officer. Last weekend, Robert Wilson’s version of “Woyzeck” was brought to life at the New Victoria Theater in Downtown Santa Barbara, performed by artists at the Ensemble Theater Company.
Wilson turned the German play into a musical with the help of rock ‘n’ roll cult artist Tom Waits (whose songs have been covered on “The Walking Dead”) and Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan. If anything can be said about this production, it’s “huh.” This is not a confused huh, or a dismissive huh. It’s more of a “huh, that was weird, but well done!” huh.
Waits’ and Brenann’s score was beautiful. If it weren’t for the fact that the band played live (charmingly placed above the stage), one would think it was an actual studio score fit for a film — the instrumentation was excellent. (And hot damn, props to Terry Halvorson for playing two saxophones at once!).
Mixing together humor, melancholy and irony, the songs were always relevant, and enhanced the play’s mood tenfold. Some of the more notable tracks include the pessimistic opening/concluding song “Misery is the River of the World,” which set the tone quite nicely, and the tragic “Coney Island Baby,” which dived into the emotions of “Woyzeck.”
In addressing the acting, and before mentioning specific actors, I’ll say that if you’ve seen too many movies and too few plays like I have, you’re likely to think that the actors are overacting. In their struggle to be heard (even while hooked up to microphones) they tended to shout their lines quite a bit. But don’t be easily fooled; here, loudness doesn’t equal poor acting. Everyone in “Woyzeck” commanded the stage with impressive singing abilities and powerful grasps of emotion. Yes, the talent was a bit boisterous, but they were far more compelling in comparison.
Matt Gottlieb deserves the first praise. He portrayed the Doctor, a character that combines a Nazi scientist with the internet character Dr. Insano. His maniacal demeanor, stereotypical costume and outrageous accent (not to mention that he sang a funky, albeit repetitive song about germs, “God’s Away on Business”) made Gottlieb a hilariously campy scene-stealer. I hope this man ends up working on a SyFy original film, because he’d be perfect in one.
Lead actor Stephen Van Dorn gradually sank into insanity as Woyzeck with mad energy and finesse. Scurrying, screaming and descending into sudden fits of madness whereupon he groped at the stage floor, Van Dorn was certainly attention-grabbing, but sometimes he struggled to convey real emotion.
Opposite of him was Gina Manziello as Woyzeck’s love interest, Marie, who packed a powerful set of pipes. Honestly, she may just be the best singer out of the whole ensemble (boy, can she belt it out). Steven Good (portraying the Drum Major, Marie’s other lover) wailed in “Another Man’s Vine” and delivered some of the funnier lines.
Adding to the play’s uniqueness was the use of a carousel to facilitate the transitions between scenes. Instead of walking offstage, the actors would merely draw the curtains inside the carousel, instantly disappearing from view. It would then rotate to reveal a new setting or new characters, forgoing the usual tradition of merely turning out the lights (which still occurred, but not much), allowing the play to proceed from scene to scene with greater speed. Here, efficiency was a breath of fresh air.
“Woyzeck” will not be for everyone, though. Some viewers might be put off by its slightly disjointed and surreal atmosphere. But if you’re looking for an off-kilter, camp musical with a mix of darkness and humor, with good acting to boot, I would say to give it a shot. I just hope that the staff fixed the slightly glitchy speakers since last Saturday.
The Ensemble Theater Company production of “Woyzeck” can be seen for $35 ($20 for those under 29) at the New Vic on 33 W. Victoria Street, nearby State Street’s Arlington Theater.
Alex Wehrung has simultaneously done his job (report for the Daily Nexus) and done his Theater 5 homework (w